Covid Scotland: Bid to give ministers controversial 'Henry VIII' powers labelled 'chilling' and a 'power grab'

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Opposition MSPs have criticised a “chilling” Scottish Government bill labelled a “power grab” despite ministerial commitments to water down the initial proposals.

The Coronavirus Recovery and Reform Bill has sparked criticism from legal experts and opposition MSPs due to the inclusion of so-called ‘Henry VIII’ powers.

These powers would give ministers the ability to amend or repeal provisions of acts of Parliament using secondary legislation.

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The Bill will give ministers the power to close schools, introduce lockdowns and shut down hospitality and tourism without the approval of parliament.

However, speaking during the stage one debate in Holyrood, Covid recovery secretary John Swinney confirmed the Government would bring a selection of amendments on the bill strengthen the involvement of MSPs.

The deputy first minister said the Scottish Government would bring amendments to the Bill at stage two, including the requirement of a “gateway vote mechanism” before the use of the Henry VIII powers was possible.

He told MSPs: "This would allow the Parliament to enact these powers with the confidence that lockdown, school closures and other emergency response measures could only be imposed in the event of a future public health threat in an emergency situation, if Parliament has so authorised.

The Scottish Government has made concessions around its controversial Coronavirus Recovery and Reform billThe Scottish Government has made concessions around its controversial Coronavirus Recovery and Reform bill
The Scottish Government has made concessions around its controversial Coronavirus Recovery and Reform bill

"Building on the practices that we have become familiar through the Covid pandemic and the need I have identified for an appropriate evidence base, the Government declaration underpinning these issues would rely upon the advice of the chief medical officer.”

Mr Swinney also defended the Bill as “appropriate” and said the changes to the law would give the Government the ability to co-ordinate a national public health response.

The changes to the Bill follow criticism by committees and legal experts about the Henry VIII powers.

Legal experts have suggested the powers are “rightly controversial” because they ““infringe upon the separation of powers, give legislative functions to the executive” and can be passed with “modest” levels of parliamentary scrutiny

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A consultation by the Covid-19 recovery committee found 81.9 per cent of the more than 1,000 respondents stated they did not support the proposals.

Opposition MSPs said they would not back the Bill’s general principles, but welcomed the concessions from ministers.

Murdo Fraser, the Covid-19 recovery spokesperson for the Scottish Conservatives, said the Bill represented a “power grab”.

He said: “I recognise that some concessions have been made, but nevertheless this Bill will still be on the statute book, it still represents a shift of power away from Parliament to Government … it is unjustified and inappropriate.”

Scottish Labour’s deputy leader Jackie Baillie warned the Bill would have “serious and long-term consequences” for Scotland and its democracy, allowing ministers to change the law without advance parliamentary scrutiny.

She also criticised the SNP’s culture of secrecy and warned the Bill would have allowed the Government to have suspended freedom of information during the pandemic as had been suggested by the-then health secretary Jeane Freeman.

Ms Baillie added: “That would undoubtedly have harmed our democracy.

"These so-called Henry VIII powers amount to a power grab and must be opposed in their entirety.”

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Alex Cole-Hamilton, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, said the Bill was “cynical, quite frankly chilling politics” and an “unprecedented power grab”

MSPs backed the bill by 65 votes to 53.

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